The Writer's Life: William Bivins

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

William Bivins has been caught in a storm – the perfect one, from the perspective of a playwright.  In the space of a year, he’s had four plays produced, to great acclaim.  All his work is mordant, noir, funny, and the action keeps happening.  Bivins’ starting point is usually already over the edge – in “The Afterlife of the Mind,” for example, a distraught wife sets out to have her brilliant husband’s brain implanted in her abdomen.  Check out the Chronicle review of his current play, “The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry,” and then go see it at SF Playhouse – it’s up just one more week.

MEH:

You have the distinction of being “the most produced local writer in San Francisco” this year.  What happened?

WB:

Luck, mostly. Of the four full-lengths done this season, one I self-produced (“Pulp Scripture”), one was a commission that came as a result of winning a playwriting contest (“The Position“) and the two others happened because the artistic directors happened to know my work–from workshops, etc.–and invited me to submit. And it all seemed to happen in the same season. I’d like to say it was all part of a brilliant strategy; but, no. Dumb luck.

MEH:

As a reformed Catholic, I have a particular soft-spot for “Pulp Scripture,” your vignette-style work about the dark side of the good book.  Are you going to H – E – double toothpicks as a result of writing it?  What’s the guilt to pleasure ratio on this for you?

WB:

Well, I thought lightning was going to strike me the first time we had a reading in the church. When it didn’t, I figured, ‘Cool, there’s no God; I’m in the clear.’ I’m kidding. I was raised Catholic Lite (Episcopalian), so I don’t have a lot of the guilt issues. Unfortunately; that would be kind of cool. BTW, I can’t tell you how many reformed Catholics have raved to me about “Pulp.” Probably on account of the guilt/pleasure ratio.

MEH:

“The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry” shines a socialist light on American agribusiness.  I know you’ve been a farmer yourself, of walnuts.  What from that experience influenced the genesis of this play?

WB:

Pecans. There’s no direct connection; pig farming is a far cry from pecan farming–much more environmentally and socially devastating. On the other hand, the play is, in part, about our relationship to land and about compromises and trade-offs. Even the most benign type of farm involves subjugating nature in some way and has a negative impact on the environment. You want to go organic? You will be dependent on natural fertilizer, which usually involves animal waste–and raising animals has its own set of ethical and environmental issues. There are always trade-offs–or, to use a fancy economics term, “externalities”; you can reduce the “footprint” but you can never eliminate it. Most of us don’t want to face that. I use pig farming ’cause it’s really the most extreme example of farming externalities I could think of.

MEH:

You’re an inspiration to toiling-in-their-garret-playwrights everywhere.  But your challenges aren’t over – can you tell us what they are and what your plans are?

WB:

I’m a bit worried about what’s going to happen now. It’s much harder to get a second production of a play than to get a premiere. So now I have all of these premiered plays, and I have to convince theatres in other parts of the country to take second dibs on them. Beyond the marketing stuff, I have a play going up at Pacific Repertory in Carmel in November (“Ransom, Texas”), and I’ll be doing rewrites on that for the next few months. Beyond that… I face the blank page again. Oh boy.

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